Injured Workers Are Not Fairly Compensated

Kansas's broken policies are plunging injured workers into poverty

The following comes from the Working Kansas Alliance. A coalition of Kansas working families. WHLF is a proud member.

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Over the last ten years, Kansas and more than two-thirds of the states have dismantled the workers’ comp system, with disastrous results for workers.

An investigation by ProPublica and National Public Radio found that the cutbacks have been so devastating that injured workers are plunged into poverty.

Injured workers are left to fight insurance companies for months, even years, to get the surgeries, medications and other help that their injuries warrant. The changes in workers’ comp and the shift of payments from employers and insurance companies to taxpayers has been unnoticed by news organizations, and the federal government stopped monitoring state workers’ comp laws during the early 2000’s.

Cuts to state workers’ comp benefits have resulted in federal programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, paying for larger portions of injured workers’ medical costs and lost earnings.

In recent years Kansas has tightened requirements for workers’ comp. In 2011, Kansas: made it more difficult for workers to receive benefits when they suffer repetitive stress injuries or the work injury triggers or aggravates an existing condition caused by aging or prior injuries; increased evidence standards for workers to qualify as permanently and totally disabled and eliminated the presumption for quadriplegics and double amputees; created a presumption that the opinion of the treating doctor (usually chosen by the employer or insurer) is correct; allowed employers and insurers to terminate medical benefits if no treatment has been received in two years; * eliminated standard in workers' comp that gave the injured worker the benefit of the doubt.

In 2013, Kansas required application of new American Medical Association guidelines for determining disability awards, which studies show significantly lowers ratings used for compensation.

One of the worst injuries that workers receive on the job is the loss of a body part. Most of us take for granted that we have all 10 fingers and toes, or both of our arms, and most of us never think that we are going to lose a body part while on the job, but many people who suffer an injury on the job find it incredibly difficult to cope with.

Losing a body part is something that is not easily “fixed.” Losing a body part is lifelong, and many find that the lost body part is not replaceable. Many find that the adequate prosthetic that they can receive is not recommended or covered by workers’ compensation.

Take for example the case of Dennis Whedbee from North Dakota. He was working on an oil well when suddenly the well blew, ripping half of his left arm off. After Whedbee lost his arm, his doctor said he’d be an ideal candidate for a modern prosthesis with a movable hand. After Whedbee’s meeting with that doctor, a North Dakota’s workers’ compensation insurer had him go to another doctor that was in Minnesota.

After just one meeting, that doctor recommended a cheaper alternative both in cost and in quality. The cheaper alternative was a prosthesis with a metal hook. Because of this second opinion, North Dakota’s Workforce Safety and Insurance agency (WSI) — the government entity that is the state’s sole workers’ comp insurer—decided that they would only cover the cost of Whedbee’s prosthesis with a metal hook.

Whedbee’s case unfortunately is not a rarity. Cases like this are happening nationwide. North Dakota, like Kansas, has steadily made it harder for workers to get benefits, which they righteously deserve, for their injuries. Right wing politicians on behalf of corporate and insurance lobbyists are mainly promoting these reforms, which are making it harder for workers to get just compensation.

The workers’ compensation program was established in the early 1900s as a bargain to protect workers who are hurt on the job. In return for a measure of security, workers gave up the right to sue their employers, protecting employers from lawsuit judgments that could bankrupt them. But now we are seeing that bargain being eroded in the name of profits, and workers are on the loose end of that bargain. As a result, families are going bankrupt and injured workers are not getting the protection they deserve.

The Kansas Legislature has ignored the unfairness of the workers’ comp system. Now is the time to take note of the dire state of workers’ comp and to begin making the needed changes.

It’s time that Kansans recognize this unfair system and expresses their concern to state leaders. Hard working Kansans deserve just protection and coverage while on the job. It is time to reform our workers’ compensation system into what it is meant to be—fair and adequate protection for those workers on the job. Hard working Kansans deserve this.